Common Women

After learning that prostitution was a more or less accepted by society in the middle ages, I further researched its existence in the middle ages, through Ruth Maz Karras’ book “Common Women”. It seems the attitude toward prostitution, even expressed by Aquinas, was that it was a “necessary evil”  during the middle ages. During this time, when the church required monogamy, men could turn to brothels and prostitution houses for sexual pleasure. Karras points out that though laws against prostitution existed, they were never enforced, unless the woman was commonly disliked by the society. In this case, she would be called a “whore” and be convicted. In one town, the third offence for sexual misconduct resulted in cutting the women’s hair and banning her from the city. Perhaps the most interesting to note is that a few neighboring English towns consolidated their prostitutes, forming a prostitution ring.

    Whether prostitution was accepted or not, therefore, varied from town to town, and from circumstance to circumstance. It does seem common, however, that as Aquinas stated it was considered a “necessary evil”. I think this shows a continuing mindset of separating pleasure from family. A young first born son married a daughter during this time period, often because it was an advantageous marriage. The purpose of this marriage was to continue the family line, add to the family fortune and produce children. Family therefore went first – the continuing of such family, through offspring as well as children. Being part of such unit, it does not seem one was expected to enjoy such a role. Prostitute houses existed as a pleasurable relief from their familial roles as fathers and brothers and husbands, so they could go back and continue living their daily lives.

 As such, prostitute houses represented the other extreme to society – sex for the purpose of pleasure for the man. These women prostitutes, were much like the men they were “serving” stuck in their roles. For as  “necessary”, they were a part of society that allowed them to exist only for the sake of providing pleasure for a man. They could provide such pleasure so that the man may return to his unit, but could never be part of such a familial unit themselves. They too, like the family fortune, were for the purpose of continuing the family line.


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